Applying for financial aid for college can be a scary and foreign experience, but Phillip Lew, author of the book, "Phillip Lew's College Planning System for Success," visited La Cañada to help families understand the process.
Lew hosted two workshops at the La Cañada Public Library on Sept. 21 and 22 to teach people how to get the most money possible for college, and to discover opportunities for aid they may not know exist.
The financial-aid process became Lew's passion when he was accepted into college but couldn't pay for it. He had been denied any monetary assistance after applying, even though he maintained a 4.4 grade-point average through high school and was being raised by a single mother who earned $50,000 a year to support both of her sons.
"I said to myself, 'Well, wait a second. If we don't qualify for financial aid, then who does?'" Lew said.
It turns out that Lew had made a mistake on his financial-aid application forms. After discovering this and correcting it, he eventually went to Boston University, which cost $50,000 a year, and he was able to use $43,000 in grant money to help cover the tab.
Now Lew is out to help all families understand the financial-aid process and avoid his mistake while clearing up the misconceptions and fears surrounding it.
One of the biggest myths out there, Lew said, is that families with a high income can't qualify for financial aid.
Students from affluent families would be ideal for a college's endowment scholarship because the school knows families that make $150,000 or more a year are more likely to donate to the institution's private endowment fund, Lew explained.
"Always, no matter how much money you do or don't get, negotiate for more financial aid," Lew said. "More often than not, it will be given."
Eighty percent of the battle is finding out what institutions have money to offer. It's important to research what a school can provide before asking for money the school may not have, Lew said.
Another suggestion Lew offers is to have colleges compete for your business by applying to multiple rival schools.
"If you only apply to one or two colleges, there is no incentive for schools to give you financial aid because you have no fallback option," Lew said.
A student's best friend throughout the whole process is his high-school counselor. That's because a college's financial-aid office is too concerned with promoting its own school, Lew said.
"Calling a college's financial-aid counselor for help with your financial aid is like calling the IRS and asking how you can minimize your taxes," Lew said. "College is a business and [colleges] are in the business of making money."
It's never too early to start planning, Lew said. Although most students don't start planning for college until their junior or senior year of high school, Lew suggests they start as soon as the freshman or sophomore year and begin planning how to pay for school.
"I realized I'd better start saving now," said Mark Kauffman, the parent of a high-school sophomore who attended Lew's workshop on Sept. 21.
The biggest fear Kauffman had before attending the workshop was that he wouldn't qualify for financial aid, but now he sees there are avenues to explore that he hadn't seen before.
"I don't want to be the impediment that keeps my kids from getting into the college they want to go to," Kauffman said. "I also don't want my kids to be like some of my friends who are 30 years old and still have student loans to pay off."